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Hellbent for Leather

Hellbent for Leather

Last week artisans, industry leaders, tanners and shoe designers from around the world came to campus for Leather.

Last week artisans, industry leaders, tanners and shoe designers from around the world came to campus for Leather.Footwear.Futures, a five-day symposium that provided hands-on learning and state-of-the-art materials exploration. Presented by RISD’s Division of Architecture + Design, the symposium also included a series of footwear exhibitions replete with jaw-dropping designs by RISD students and faculty.

“This is a pivotal moment for the footwear and leather industries,” notes Assistant Professor of Apparel Design Kathleen Grevers, who organized the symposium. “Traditional craft continues to thrive alongside new and innovative techniques and groundbreaking materials. We’re pleased to bring this diverse group to RISD to connect with our own artists and designers.”

Nicoline van Enter, a footwear forecaster and creative director of Shoes Leather Education & Museum (SLEM) in the Netherlands, touched on a range of mindboggling design and materials innovations currently in the works, including woven 3D-printed outsoles, bioengineered leather grown to size and interactive shoes embedded with GPS devices that allow the blind to walk without canes or seeing-eye dogs.

With environmentalism and sustainability on the mind of every leather worker, van Enter also spoke about plant-based alternatives to animal skins and recyclable, coated textiles that contain no petroleum products or other toxic materials. And she noted the importance of shoes in preventing human diseases. Ebola, for example, is spread quickly via bare feet, and jiggers – a huge problem in countries like Kenya – enter the body through the sole of the foot, causing lifetime deformities.

On the traditional side of the spectrum, fashion industry consultant and shoe historian Carmen Artigas presented an upbeat talk on the anthropology of footwear fashions. Among the fascinating facts she offered is that men – specifically 16th-century Persian warriors on horseback – wore high heels before women did. She also provided this interesting footnote: London’s Royal Ballet spends more than 250,000 British pounds (approximately $404,000) each year on ballet shoes.

Massimo Boldrini and Stefano Parrini of the Genuine Italian Vegetable Tanned Leather Consortium offered another taste of tradition, focusing on tanning techniques that have been passed down through the generations in Italy’s Tuscan region. Enthusiastic conference participants were eager to examine the wide variety of top-quality tanned hides they brought along.

The process and (well-guarded) tannin recipes vary from artisan to artisan, Parrini explained through a translator, but they all evolved as a byproduct of Europe’s meat and dairy industries and involve tannins made from wood, bark, fruit and leaves. A wide range of surface treatments and dyes are applied to create one-of-a-kind leathers used by the luxury brands the consortium supplies, including Hermes in France and – of course – Gucci in Italy. During his talk, Parrini revealed a disdain for designers obsessed with perfect leather, noting that every skin is different and reflects the life lived by an actual animal.

The leather aficionado also taught a workshop on vegetable tanning as part of a series of master classes that took place around campus. Other workshops included Melding Form, Function and Fashion by footwear designer Linn Cassetta 73 AP, a lesson on product branding from Well Bred Cofounder Jorge Gomez MID 09 and a class on simple shoemaking techniques by author/designer Sharon Raymond.

Simone Solondz